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Spatial Form in Modern Literature: A Reconsideration

Author(s): William Holtz


Source: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Winter, 1977), pp. 271-283
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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Spatial Form in Modern Literature:


A Reconsideration

William Holtz

The analogy with painting is persistentand long honored in the history


of criticism, and in aesthetics and literary theory the issue has been
extensively studied in its many ramifications.'The twin problems have
always been to identify the common elements that the analogy draws
together and to distinguish the essential differences that the analogy
tends to blur; and in confronting these problems later writers must
acknowledgeboth the primacyof Lessing'sLaocoiin(1766) and the necessarydependency of their own body of commentaryon that paradigmatic
work. The present essay is no exception and stands, in fact, in the embarrassingposition of a commentaryupon a commentaryupon Lessing's
work.
What I would attempt here is to reconsider and, perhaps, to some
extent to rehabilitatethe concept of "spatialform" in literarycriticism.
The term so used derives from an essay byJoseph Frankwhich, in 1945,
was accorded the singular distinctionof serial publicationin the Sewanee
Review.Later, condensed versions were included in several widely used
anthologies of modern criticism;and more recently a presumablyfinal
version received the author's second scrutiny as part of a book-length
study of modern literature.2The original publicationprovoked several
1. For basic accounts, see Renssalaer H. Lee, "Ut Pictura Poesis: The Humanistic
Theory of Painting," Art Bulletin 22 (December 1940): 197-269; W. K. Wimsatt and
Cleanth Brooks, Literary Criticism:A Short History (New York, 1957), chap. 13; Brewster
Rogerson, "The Art of Painting the Passions," Journal of the History of Ideas 14 (January
1953): 68-94; and Jean H. Hagstrum, The Sister Arts (Chicago, 1958).
2. "Spatial Form in Modern Literature," Sewanee Review 53 (Spring, Summer, Autumn 1945). Reprinted in Critiques and Essays in Modern Fiction: 1920-1951, ed. J. W.
Aldridge (New York, 1952); A Grammarof LiteraryCriticism,ed. Lawrence Hall (New York,
1965); Criticism:The Foundations of Modern LiteraryJudgment, ed. Mark Schorer et al. (New

271

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William Holtz

A Reconsiderationof Spatial Form

closely reasoned attempts at refutation; and although the problem


would seem to have died in the time since, we find it surfacing again in
an honorific reference to Frank's "celebrated essay" in a recent survey of
contemporary criticism that postulates "spatial form" as "one of the most
interesting issues."3 Thus if Frank's study has not quite assumed the
status of a modern classic, it is at least established among the modern
canon of critical essays that deal with the fundamental nature of literature. Yet even this most recent survey of critical issues merely nods to
Frank without examining his ideas, so we are left confronting an essay of
major importance that has elicited serious attention only from those who
disagree with its findings.

1
A brief summary will remind most readers of Frank's essential
points; those who here encounter the concept of "spatial form" for the
first time may want to refer to the original essay in which copious illustrations make clear the ideas that underlie the following discussion.
Essentially, Frank's argument is an extension of a concept fundamental
to general aesthetics that received its classical treatment in Lessing's Laoco6n. Lessing, disturbed by a tendency of poetry to become too descriptive and painting too narrational, sought to rectify centuries of uncritical
acceptance of the Horatian ut pictura poesis by insisting on the absolute
distinction between time and space-and, consequently, between literature, which consists of verbal symbols (language) occupying a sequence
of time, and painting, or visual art generally, which consists of visual
symbols occupying an area of space. From this distinction Lessing concludes that the legitimate province of literature is narrative-things in
action-while the legitimate province of painting is the visual form-an
arrangement of contemporaneous figures in a moment of rest. Frank
acknowledges Lessing as his model and draws upon the temporal-spatial
distinction to describe a quality of modern literature that he terms "spatial form." Spatial form is not, as we might guess, necessarily "descriptive" writing aimed at the mind's eye but rather a form that grows out of
the writer's attempt to negate the temporal principle inherent in lanYork, 1948); Critiquesand Essays in Criticism:1920-1948, ed. R. W. Stallman (New York,
1949). In Frank's The Widening Gyre (New Brunswick, N. J., 1963).
3. Gregory T. Polletta, ed.,Issues in Contemporary
LiteraryCriticism(Boston, 1973), p. 24.

William Holtz, professor of English at the University of MissouriColumbia, is currently preparing an edition of an unpublished juvenile
manuscript by Charlotte Brontie.

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Critical Inquiry

Winter 1977

273

guage and to force apprehension of his work as a total "thing" in a


moment of time rather than as a sequence of things. The guiding principle here is Ezra Pound's definition of the image as "that which presents
an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time." Thus in
modern literature we find, on one level, the disruption (or disappearance) of the sequential principle of "action" or "plot," and on
other levels the corresponding distortion of sequential principles of syntax and expository discourse. The sequential or temporal principle is
replaced by the principle of "reflexive reference": that is, suspension of
meaningful reference until the whole pattern is perceived.
To illustrate this concept, Frank ranges over a wide variety of works.
In Ulysses, for example, the narrative is so fragmented, the key allusions
and symbols so scattered, that the reader must continually suspend reference until he imperceptibly gains a sense of Dublin in its entirety:
Joyce demands that the reader achieve "the same instinctive knowledge
of Dublin life, the same sense of Dublin as a huge, surrounding organism, that the Dubliner possesses as a birthright. It is this birthright
that, at any one moment of time, gives the native a knowledge of Dublin's past and present as a whole; and it is only such knowledge that
would enable the reader . . to place all the references in their proper
context.... Joyce ... proceeded on the assumption that a unified spatial
apprehension of his work would ultimately be possible."4 T. S. Eliot's The
WasteLand and Ezra Pound's Cantos provide similar illustrations; and the
works of Flaubert and Proust, although more conventional in structure,
demand in certain passages this same "spatial" apprehension. A major
part of Frank's essay is devoted to an analysis of Djuna Barnes' Nightwood
in which he demonstrates that the novel's meaning depends upon
allusions and cross-references independent of the temporal progress of
the narrative: the reader must connect passages "reflexively" to achieve a
unified, whole impression.
In the final part of his study, Frank attempts to interpret spatial
form as a cultural phenomenon. He turns again to a German aesthetician, Wilhelm Worringer, whose study of the history of art styles provides an analogue to Frank's capsule history of literary form. Worringer
describes the history of art styles from primitive to modern times as an
alternation between abstract, non-representational styles and naturalistic, representational styles: his basic contention is that the former prevails in periods when man feels intimidated or alienated in relation to his
universe, the second in those periods when man feels confident and
secure in his world. The relevant contrast is between the great achievements in verisimilitude made possible by Renaissance discoveries in the
handling of perspective and the modern abandonment of threedimensional form and representational values generally: the shift in
4. Frank, The Widening Gyre, p. 19.

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William Holtz

A Reconsiderationof Spatial Form

Zeitgeist can be read in the change of style. The connection with literary
form is made by way of the relationship between temporal values and
three-dimensional perspective: although all visual art is inherently spatial, three-dimensional art is less spatial than abstract, two-dimensional
art, for "depth ... gives objects a time-value because it places them in the
real world in which events occur." Thus modern art moves toward a
purer spatiality, and the abolishment of representational threedimensional perspective has its "exact complement" in the timetranscending devices by which modern literature achieves its own "spatial form."5
The academic response to Frank's essay is best represented by Professor G. Giovannini, whose essentially deprecatory essay is based on a
clear-sighted analysis of the problems of comparisons between the arts.
One of his basic contentions is that the "common element" upon which
such comparisons rest proves generally to be "an element actually given
(i.e., perceptible to sense) in one object and objectively analyzable in it,
and not given in the other but merely suggested in the affective response
and applicable to the object only by way of metaphor."6 Frank, it may be
said, has allowed himself to be misled by the pictorial metaphor which,
although useful in a limited way for suggesting the concept he struggles
with, introduces irrelevancies when used as an analogy to argue from
painting to literature. For the "spatiality" he finds in literary form is not
the spatiality objectively present in a painting or a sculpture (except for
"shaped" poems and other such typographical devices); rather, this literary spatiality seems to be an operation of the mind synthesizing data
which may (in some instances Frank cites) form a visualizable image with
communicable spatial dimension but which (in most of his examples) do
not necessarily cohere in any demonstrably spatial way. Moreover,
Frank's argument neglects the unavoidable problem of temporal order
in data so synthesized: this order is objectively a feature of the work, and
must be dealt with, whether the data come in a "normal" sequence or no.
Thus the spatial order of a painting and the "spatiality" of The Waste
Land are of different ontological orders, and the critic should not confuse them.
Such an analysis considerably diminishes the authority of Frank's
argument. But it remains to be determined what is salvageable; despite
manifest inadequacies, the theory does seem to touch something significant in modern literature, and if the pictorial analogy is misleading in
certain of its metaphorical extensions, there is yet an area of important
5. Ibid., pp. 56-57.
6. "Method in the Study of Literature in Its Relation to the Other Fine Arts,"Journal
of Aestheticsand Art Criticism8 (March 1950): 185-95, quote from p. 190. See also Walter
Sutton, "The Literary Image and the Reader: A Consideration of the Theory of Spatial
Form,"Journal of Aestheticsand Art Criticism 16 (1957): 112-23; Jan Miel, "Temporal Form
in the Novel," Modern Language Notes 84 (December 1969): 916-30.

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Critical Inquiry

Winter 1977

275

relevance. For metaphor has heuristic value, giving a local body and a
name to conceptions not yet established in the communal mental economy nor, at times, nameable in any other way in the mind of the
individual. Frank's critics may have in fact identified merely what he has
not said without perceiving what real import his figure carries. We are
here concerned, it would seem, with the essential nature of our literary
perceptions, with the phenomenology, some might say, of literature.
Frank and his critics with equal honesty attempt to define their perceptions, and my own concern stems from my initial .impression that both
are equally right. What follows is my attempt to establish a ground within
which both may legitimately be right.

2
One measure of the validity of Frank's insight is the extent to which
other versions of his ideas appear in other contexts: for if "spatial form"
refers to something real, it cannot have escaped notice by other readers.
One thinks, for example, of Northrop Frye's description of the critic
viewing all the elements of the poem as a simultaneous array before him;
or of Gaston Bachelard's evocative descriptions of The Poetics of Space. Or
Pound's interest in ideographic script; or the frequent critical association
of modern literature with impressionist painting. Or Eliot's poet synthesizing Spinoza, the sound of the typewriter, and the smell of cookery into
a unified whole. Or-at the root of it all, perhaps-Poe's insistence on
the unified effect of the story or poem.' All of these instances reflect a
more or less casual assumption of the basic premise of Frank's essay.
More recently another critic, Frank Kermode, has offered an alternative
description of this general problem. In The RomanticImage8 he assesses
symbolist poetic theory; here the verbal image (or symbol), autonomous
and autotelic, presumably unites meaning and feeling without intervening reflection or discourse: the "image" so hypostatized seems very close
to a "spatial" form, and certainly the suppression of discourse, of reflection generally, follows from the disruption of syntax and narrative that
results from the impulse toward "spatial" effects. Provisionally, we might
say that Joseph Frank's essay is grounded in an essentially formalist
conception of the literary work as artifact, and that the striking features
7. Northrop Frye, "Literary Criticism," in TheAimsand Methodsof Scholarshipin Modern
Languages and Literature, ed. James Thorpe (New York, 1963), p. 65. See also Fables of
Identity:Studies in Poetic Mythology(New York, 1963), p. 21. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of
Space, trans. Maria Jolas (New York, 1964). Ernest Fenollosa, The ChineseWrittenCharacter
as a Mediumfor Poetry, ed. Ezra Pound (San Francisco, 1969). T. S. Eliot, "The Metaphysical
Poets," SelectedEssays (New York, 1950), p. 247. Edgar Allan Poe, review of Twice-Told
Tales, in Works, 17 vols., ed. James A. Harrison (New York, 1902), 11: 104-13.
8. Frank Kermode, The RomanticImage (London, 1957).

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of his argument result from an attempt to assimilate extended works


(poetry as well as fiction) to a theory basically lyric in its orientation: as
corollary, we must assume that the modern writers he cites had themselves operationally defined the concept in the course of their writing.
But once we begin to think in the terms Frank offers us, larger
analogues to "spatial" form come to our attention. Both T. S. Eliot and
Northrop Frye, for instance, conceive of the whole of literature not as
history but as a simultaneous order in which the discrete work participates. Psychoanalytic and myth criticism reveal how individual and cultural history constitute an order simultaneous with the present, pressing
in on each moment (as Bergson suggests) like a huge inverted pyramid
of past time. To know anything at all about evolutionary theory is to
realize how aeons of cumulative experience presumably are lodged immediately in our very cells; and, as Kenneth Boulding has described for
us, the cognitive development of our minds can be understood by means
of the model of an image which, although always assimilating new experience, always maintains itself as an integrated whole.9 Boulding's
theory suggests that the mode of perception that Frank invokes for
understanding early twentieth-century works in particular seems to be
complemented by an analogous mode for larger contexts across a wide
range of intellectual disciplines. To shift the tenor of the metaphor thus
from the discrete phenomenon to the larger order beyond it is to shift
from a formalist to a structuralist perspective; and perhaps the most
comprehensive paradigm for contemplating this interiorized "spatiality"
is the hypothetical linguistic order described in 1916 by Ferdinand de
Saussure. Out of his discontent with historical philology, Saussure developed the distinction between the synchronic and the diachronic study of
language. This distinction itself was grounded in a deeper distinction
between langue (the total language-system each speaker carries with him,
wholly present in every moment) and parole (the individual speech-act,
temporally successive, largely constrained by the langue but ultimately
modifying it). And nothing is clearer than Saussure's attribution of
prime reality to langue: "to the degree that something is meaningful, it
will be found to be synchronic."10
Thus Frank's account of spatial form can be seen as a partial description of what has been a general shift (since about 1914) in our ways
of inquiring about our experience; his choice of terms from Lessing,
moreover, may in fact be a sound intuition rather than an arbitrary
anachronism. For this shift is itself perceivable in the science of physics
as well; and to choose for modern literature the term that Lessing would
9. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," SelectedEssays, p. 5. Frye, Anatomyof
Criticism:Four Essays (Princeton, 1957), p. 17. Kenneth Boulding, The Image (Ann Arbor,
1956).
10. Reported by Fredric Jameson in his The Prison-House of Language (Princeton,
1972), p. 5.

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Critical Inquiry

Winter 1977

277

proscribe for literature is not so much perverse as symptomatic. Those


who insist on the essentially time-bound nature of literature, in terms of
both the duration of our reading and the progressive nature of the
constructs, are the heirs of Lessing, whose analysis rests upon an absolute disjunction of time and space. That this disjunction is a convenient
assumption appropriate only to certain areas of our experience is now
apparent to anyone conversant with the course of modern physics. The
classical physics of Lessing's day could tolerate the dichotomy (although
the essential inadequacy of this mode of thought would soon be noted
prophetically by Coleridge); but just as for Saussure problems in philology and syntax led to a recasting of language in synchronic terms (of a
dialectic between langue and parole), so have problems in physical
phenomena led to a recasting of physical reality in terms of a unified
spatial-temporal "field" within which the substantial entities of everyday
temporal experience have only a contingent status in a larger structure
whose simultaneity is a function of the speed of light.11 Thus, for literature, although both the spatial quality that Frank finds and the temporality his critics insist upon can be converted into each other by posing the
appropriate questions, the emphasis that Frank seeks and the terms he
chooses can be said to mark a transitional moment between formalist and
structuralist conceptions. That is, the problems posed by large narrative
works for an aesthetic grounded in lyric forms seem to have moved
Frank to go beyond a merely substantialist metaphor (the well-wrought
urn), beyond even a psychological metaphor (the image), to an
essentially scientific metaphor that assimilates both the objective synchronicity of substantial forms and the relational synchronicity of modern structuralist conceptions.
We find ourselves contemplating these problems: (1) that of part to
whole (e.g., individual image to whole poem, and of poem to poetry) as
well as (2) that of the synchronic to diachronic (e.g., syntax to image, plot
movement to structure), and (3) that of language to "reality," of word to
thing, of parole to concrete experience, of langue to culture generally-all
of these under the comprehensive distinction between the media of
space and time introduced to literary theory by Lessing and invoked for
our own time by Joseph Frank. We must speculate that these problems
are forced on us by the inherent limitations of our perceptual and conceptual endowment. For the problems of physics lead to problems in
epistemology: the strictly empirical scientist may be content to observe
that light seems to act at some times as though it were composed of
discrete particles, at other times as though it were continuous waves; but
the equal validity of each account suggests that the difference is a matter
11. For a lucid, nontechnical account of the problems of modern physics, see Niels
Bohr, Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge (New York, 1958). For the impact of these
problems on the artist, see Douglas Angus, "Quantum Physics and the Creative Mind," The
American Scholar 30 (Spring 1961): 212-20.

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of having to adopt mutually exclusive perspectives to perceive different


features of the same phenomenon. Complementarity is the term invoked here to identify the dizzying vision of a reality intuited as whole
but describable only as the hypothetical sum of partial perspectives. At
most, we can hope that the sum of our perspectives is the sum of
reality; more humbly, we must recognize that this may not be so; but in
either case, the scientific discipline that we trust most implicitly for an
account of the ultimate nature of things suggests that to the extent that
our knowledge is empirical it is also modal.
The paradox has been formalized by one school of modern linguistics which bases its investigations upon a theory of knowledge derived
from physical theory.12 According to this theory, we perceive the world
in three modes, each of which has its linguistic counterpart: as particle (a
discrete unit, such as a single word), as wave (a flowing continuum, such
as the sound patterns of speech), and as field (a self-contained network
of relationships, such as the grammar of a language). Each mode can
account for the world in a certain way; presumably, we adopt each mode
as we need it; and all we know of our world is a function of the complementary relationships of these modes each to the others. What seems
clear, whether we contemplate language or the physical world, is that
"particle" and "field" are phenomenologically (and metaphorically) spatial conceptions (simple and compound), whereas the "wave" phenomenon operates in a temporal dimension and is named by a temporal
metaphor. To embrace this severely qualified theory of human knowledge is not merely to ease some difficult either-or dilemmas; it also is to
recognize that any single modal account of a phenomenon is necessarily
both incomplete and the result of highly specific needs or interests.
Perhaps the greatest value in such a theory is heuristic, as it forces us to
attend to aspects of experience that we might otherwise overlook.
Thus, poem as "field," a self-contained area of our experience in
which particular words and images vibrate in a dynamic, charged,
mutually-supportive relationship. Thus poem as "wave," a sonorous, or
syntactical, or rhetorical, or narrative continuum in time. Thus poem as
"particle," a unit within some larger field, such as the body of an author's
work or the literature of a distinct tradition or period. Within this
tri-modal scheme we can place not only Frank and his critics but such
structuralist conceptions as Eliot's and Frye's. Clearly the formalist (or
aesthetic, or symbolist) criticism of our time has focused on the self12. Kenneth L. Pike, "Language as Particle, Wave, and Field," Texas Quarterly 2
(Summer 1954): 37-54. Pike apparently derived his theories from analogies with physics,
but the similarity of his "field" to Saussure's langue is close. I have tried to suggest extensions of Pike's "field theory" to literary study in "Field Theory and Literature," Centennial
Review 2 (Fall 1967) 532-48. Recent neurological experiments indicate that our verbal and
spatial activities are functions of different halves of our brain: see Newsweek, 6 August
1973, p. 61.

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Critical Inquiry

Winter 1977

279

contained field of the poem-in-itself, often under the metaphor of artifact (the wrought urn or jeweled bird), while the emerging structuralist
criticism tends to efface the individuality of the artifact for the sake of
clarifying the larger field of which it is a part.13 In either case, synchronicity is a condition of knowledge, and the spatial metaphor Frank
applies to the first is equally applicable to the second; and each can be
read as symptomatic of a modern discontent with (1) the substantialist
implications of metaphors of organism or artifact, (2) the temporal dimension of meaning as manifest in syntax, rhetoric, or narrative (these
implicitly identified with philosophy and science), and (3) the temporal
sequences of history and evolution as connections between individual
works. This impulse toward relational concepts may in fact be the intellectual version of the abstractionist tendencies Frank connects with the
general malaise of our culture; or, as another writer has put it, a world in
which the natural order has been largely supplanted by a vast network of
communication systems may very well be thought of in terms of the
structure of language itself.14

3
If we take seriously the hypothesis that knowledge resides in complementary modes, then, in the broadest sense, both Frank and his critics
are correct. Considerable advantage accrues from this point of view. We
can say, for example, that both Ulysses and Great Expectations have a
"spatial" dimension as we contemplate their achieved orders. But if we
imagine GreatExpectationsin the narrative manner of Ulysses,it becomes
apparent that however the "story" might remain the same, the temporal
component of our total experience would be radically different. And
although we can say that Joyce's technique is to the end of enforcing one
mode of perception over another (this constituting, in part, its modernity),15 the technique does not obliterate the temporal sequence but
rather moves along unfamiliar tracks. This is to pose again Frank Kermode's commonsense observation: that our continuing discourse about
modern literature apparently depends upon temporal connections
within the works other than the narrative, rhetorical, and syntactical
sequences that have been abandoned.16 What these poetic sinews are
remains to be accounted for, but to the extent that they apparently
depend heavily upon covert contributions by the reader to the continuity
13. The point is made clearly by Polletta, pp. 18-19. His survey of criticism contains a
good bibliography on structuralism: see n. 30, pp. 175-76.
14. Jameson, p. ix.
15. This emphasis is perhaps best understood in terms of the concept of "defamiliarization" suggested by the Russian Formalists. See Jameson, pp. 54-59.
16. Kermode, p. 155.

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of what he reads (as distinct from overt, conventional contributions by


the author), they would seem to call for an attention to audience at least
as rigorous as our attention to artifact. Clearly the leap from word to
word, from image to image, is not blind but guided by some sense of a
continuity transcending the riddled surface of the text itself.
Equally important are those complementary effects in which serial
perception is reconstituted into image-those effects ranging from the
most transitory visual image, through self-conscious and traditional pictorial description, to the kind of abstracted spatial form Frank identifies
in modern poetry and fiction. The temporal axis is always undeniably
present, yet the constituted reality is of a different order because it
integrates the series into an essentially "timeless" construct. The
technology of our television reveals to us one measure of this "specious
present" in our visual experience: apparently the lapse between the
scanning of the TV camera and the integration of these patterned bits
into a perceivable image is about 0.05 second.17 In reading, this presumably corresponds to our perception of the word or phrase, perhaps even
to some minimal image; and from this base we can project successively
longer "presents" in each medium, ranging from that required to assimilate the details of a conventional painting or lyric poem to that needed to
perceive the order and unity of, say, The WasteLand or Picasso's Guernica.
Rhetoric and gestalt psychology face each other as complementary disciplines at this juncture.

4
Such, finally, are the implications for literary theory and criticism of
Joseph Frank's concept of spatial form, a concept that initially defines
itself in terms of an opposition between Lessing's theory of literary form
and the theory implicit in the forms of modern literature. Beneath the
contrast in formal assumptions presumably lies a cultural contrast and,
deeper still, a contrast between classical and modern physics and
metaphysics, as the substantial certainties of Newton's world gave way to
the relativity of Einstein's. What I have tried to suggest here is not so
much a solution to paradoxes such as those Frank's essay turns on as a
model for thinking about them. Implicit in this model is a vision of the
world (or of human experience in the world) as a pervasive dialectic
between synchronic and diachronic conceptions in which "space,"
"field," and "particle" serve as convenient metaphors in our discourse
about one pole of this dialectic. Indeed, the difficult reach for metaphor,
the simple fact that the word synchronicmerely identifies a modality of
17. Abraham Moles, Information Theory and Esthetic Perception, trans. Joel E. Cohn
(Urbana, Ill., 1966), pp. 57-58, 94-95.

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Critical Inquiry

Winter 1977

281

time, suggests that this pole is somehow less real than time itself, which
we may identify as the necessary condition of our participation in the
natural order; whereas that which we call space is of a different order,
emerging as "other" as consciousness separates itself from the flux of
time and constructs its symbolic orders in language, art, and science.
To this extent, "picture" may necessarily always occupy a privileged
relationship to language as it manifests the timelessness that culture
strives for in its contention with the perpetual novelty of mere chronicity. To say this is not to reduce literature to description but merely to
recognize description as a highly formalized version of this relationship.
Lessing's contention in the eighteenth century was with certain abuses of
this formal relationship deriving ultimately from both the conquest of
the European imagination by the glories of Renaissance and baroque
painting and the academic codification of casual remarks from classical
antiquity that did in fact recognize a basic complementarity.18 Lessing's
account itself, despite its clear-cut theoretical distinction between the arts,
teeters on the edge of paradox: the vaunted example of the shield of
Achilles can be said to reduce his distinction to one between still and
moving pictures,'9 while a later consideration of the problem renders
the whole matter very problematical, as he is unable to exorcise a residual pictorialism at the heart of his conception of language:
Poetry must try to raise its arbitrary signs to natural signs: that is
how it differs from prose and becomes poetry. The means by which
this is accomplished are the tone of words, the position of words,
measure, figures and tropes, similes, etc. All these make arbitrary
signs more like natural signs, but they don't actually change them
into natural signs; consequently all genres that use only these means
must be looked on as lower kinds of poetry; and the highest kind of
poetry will be that which transforms the arbitrary signs completely
into natural signs. That is dramatic poetry .. .20
Here we might say that Lessing reaches the limit of his verbaltemporal theory at just about the point where Joseph Frank begins his
pictorial-spatial one-that is, at the point of the verbal image. And
although a bias toward the drama, with its inherent temporal spectacle,
saves Lessing's theory, there remain other genres in which the described
effect can only be a subjective image, projected upon the mind's eye with
all the illusionary effect of painting itself. Joseph Frank, we might guess,
beginning with a commitment to modern literature, found in Pound's
doctrine of the poetic image a key to its essential nature and in Lessing's
18. Not only Horace's misconstrued ut pictura poesis but also Simonides' "painting is
mute poetry, and poetry a speaking picture." See also Wimsatt and Brooks, pp. 271-75.
19. Wimsatt and Brooks, pp. 269-70.
20. Cited from Rene Wellek, A History of Modern Criticism, 1750-1950, 4 vols. (New
Haven, 1955), 1: 164-65.

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282

William Holtz

A Reconsiderationof Spatial Form

basic theory a rationale-by-inversion that described modern literature in


terms of a break with the past. And just to the extent that Lessing could
not deal with wholly legitimate scenic or lyric effects, Frank cannot deal
with whatever sequential ligatures run through the modern works that
his extension of Pound's insight allows him to bring together. But
perhaps the most significant contrast is that although Lessing's unexorcised pictorial residuum is an image of man acting, Frank's
abstracted spatial order is offered as a displacement of sequences of
human action by an image of man perceiving. So long as the sense of this
spatiality is that of the specifically human percept, we remain with Lessing in the realm of individuals and individual works of art. When we
pursue the spatial principle beyond the individual percept, we find ourselves verging on those structuralist synchronic orders that achieve their
persuasive power at the expense of individual men and individual works.
To move in this latter direction is, of course, to move away from the
study of literature toward general aesthetics and ultimately toward
semiotics, a progress implicit in Frank's own assimilation of modern
literature to abstract art and both to a cultural angst that presumably
manifests itself in other ways. Useful as such thinking may be, and however consonant it is with the modern devaluation of all that is uniquely
human, it is also a flight from a responsible scrutiny of a directly intuited
relationship with the work itself. Better, to the extent that our study is a
humanistic discipline, to follow Lessing's example and push our description of this relationship to whatever suggestive impasse our language
may lead. And, I must hasten to add, Frank does this himself in reaching
for his spatial metaphor as a most honest account of his perceptions: it is
the tempting transformation in realms beyond the individual instance
that seems dangerous here. It is the specific "spatiality" of our involvement with individual works, traditional as well as modern, that we would
do well to scrutinize rather than a hypostatized spatial principle. For the
spatial aspects of this involvement, however objectively trivial, constitute
a rich and complex body of data adhering to, inextricably bound up
with, the more easily analyzable time-flow of lexical statement and narrative progression. Gaston Bachelard has imaginatively illuminated certain
areas of this experience; presumably an equally imaginative and specifically pictorial treatment awaits each of what Helmut Hatzfeld enumerates as the seven constant cases of problems in the relations between
literature and art,21 problems which by and large have been the province
of historical scholars rather than critics. There remain to be written, for
instance, basic studies in some measure complementary to A. A. Mendilow's Time in the Novel, Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending, and
Hans Meyerhoff 's Time in Literaturein which the genesis of the spatial
metaphor would be fully explored and its validity demonstrated in
21. Helmut Hatzfeld, LiteraturethroughArt (New York, 1952), chap. 6.

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Critical Inquiry

Winter 1977

283

specific analyses of the configurations of our involvement with discrete


works.22
Studies which move in this direction will move (metaphorically)
from space toward picture, as did Lessing's, although what we find in
them will be no more conventional description than are Lessing's covert
images conventional drama. Rather, these studies will uncover figures
created by the demand of the works upon us and define the space in
which those figures endure as we engage them. This space, neither
within ourselves nor in the empirical order, we might well term verbal
space, for it problematically mediates between other spatial realms as
language mediates between the world and our thought about it. Other
dramas than Lessing could conceive of take shape in this space that
modern literature so emphatically thrusts us into and that Joseph Frank
has named. It remains for an adequate criticism to explore the dimensions of this space and to define its relation to the inner and outer
realms of which it is so problematically a simulacrum.23
22. Bachelard gives us an inventory, as it were, of spatial motifs. Georges Poulet has
treated both literary time and space in terms of specific writers but typically dissolves
individual works into a description of the quality of the writer's consciousness: see Studiesin
Human Time (Baltimore, 1956) and The InteriorDistance (Baltimore, 1959), both trans. Elliot
Coleman.
23. The term "verbal space" I take from Cary Nelson, The Incarnate Word:Literatureas
VerbalSpace (Urbana, Ill., 1973). This book is the most recent of the few efforts to consider
the spatial metaphor seriously, in this instance under the aspect of "body." For another
approach, see Sharon Spencer, Space, Time and Structurein the Modern Novel (New York,
1971); here, space is manifest as "architecture." See also Hugh Kenner, Flaubert,Joyce and
Beckett: The Stoic Comedians (Boston, 1962), for a discussion of the book as typographic
object; and William Holtz, "Thermodynamics and the Comic and Tragic Modes," Western
Humanities Review 25 (Summer 1971): 203-16, for an extension of "spatial form" to a
theory of comedy.

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